Frontline report: A pianist in Caracas

Frontline report: A pianist in Caracas


norman lebrecht

May 05, 2017

From Elena Riu, special to Slipped Disc:


Two weeks ago, on a trip to visit my elderly mother and family in Caracas I revisited Schuman’s extraordinary ‘Kinderszenen’ as preparation for a concert in London, where I live.

On my rickety, old, out of tune and humidity-stricken upright, neglected for months, I returned once more to this familiar score and to the faded stage of my Caracas childhood. Seen through Schumann’s world,  I remembered the sunny ease of life in my country before my departure. The plentiful mangos beckoning from generous trees, the ‘patinatas’ ( roller skating parties) in the streets of Altamira, where I lived (now a war zone). The sun shining in the eyes of people, always ready for a joke, ready to step in to help a passer by, an old person. The Perfect Happiness of a day in the Parque del Este, the all pervading feeling that everything good was awaiting and possible. Abundance.

No more. After years of lies, corruption and embezzlement by a dictatorship, what I revisited and witnessed last month were scenes which could have come straight out of Guernica or indeed, Goya’s Disasters of War.

I would have never described myself as particularly patriotic. The daughter of an exiled Catalan philosopher and an Italian immigrant living in the UK my identity’s net is cast wide and far. Then, in 2014, something changed. Massive but peaceful protests were met by brutal repression and killings of young people, almost children, by government officials. If you have never been to Venezuela you might find it difficult to imagine the gentleness and charm of its people. Their beautiful voices, their sense of humour, their concern for their elders, their love of children.

My outrage grew as I watched videos depicting woundings and murder and heard from friends and relatives. This government has turned my country into one of the most dangerous and violent places in the world. This is a place were, if something happens to you, the last person to call is a policeman.

Last August, my mother was ill and I went out. There was a chill in the air. The stale smell of fear prevailed upon the city. In ordinary neighbourhoods, I saw people looking for food inside the rubbish bags lining the street. Shock and disbelief lingered for weeks.

Now I am back and what I see is utter misery and destruction. Much worse. At first one only notices the coverings, the ravaged surfaces. The demoralization of architecture. Then, you look deeper, you take in the detail. Eyes too tired and scared to see, mouths without smiles, the holes in the clothes. The people. The victims.

To see what really goes on in a country one must use public transport. A tricky one in my country…Let me tell you. One does not use public transport lightly in Caracas if one can help it. It is far too dangerous. But then, a car does not guarantee safety either. So many of my friends have been held at gunpoint at traffic lights….Forced by airport authorities to get some official documents  I ventured out on the only march-free day since our arrival. Having to cross the city from one government office to another, it was a toss-up between hailing a cab on my own (probably far more dodgy than taking the tube) or tubing it, as at least , if I got kidnapped, robbed or murdered someone would see it. So I decided, against  everyone’s advice, to opt for the latter.

The underground was packed. It is 10 am and I am scared. A mugging is taking place as I arrive on the platform. People are shouting. I run in. I look around and then I feel it. This unusual, eerie presence. The silence. The staring.  The downcast faces. The hunger games.

These are the real hunger games. The government has done it homework. This is no rookie dictatorship. Maduro and his retinue have mastered starvation as a form of warfare. Its corroding denial has debilitated, scared and infiltrated the minds, hearts and souls of Venezuelans. People joke that Maduro’s supporters have been bought out with a ‘bozal de arepa’ : a bread muzzle. Not surprising. You can see why. Finding food is an epic endeavour. If you are a tourist, or have access to foreign currency you can walk into any supermarket and buy at hugely inflated European prices but if, like most people, you earn a minimum wage of  $40 a month the only way is to queue for subsidized goods. This takes most of the day and consumes most of your energy and it is usually futile.

The people I sat with in the tube, in government buildings and offices, were beaten into submission by hunger. Parents paraded their sick children in the carriages for money. Rage and sadness flooded my heart.

In Yoga philosophy, Prana, the life force, is sustained by a number of things, one of them being food. These men, women and children had only one though in their minds:’ where am I going to find my next meal?’. Marching is hard on an empty stomach.

And what  marches. Imagine the  M25 lined with people. How can they carry on? Who will help them? Where will they find the strength  to continue ? But against all odds, their spirit is not beaten yet. A thirst for justice , but most of all, love and the truth keeps them going. I walk down my street and join them for a while and feel immense pride but I also feel the fear. Anything can happen , because the President has armed hordes of thugs and instructed them to go out and use knifes, guns and baseball bats on anyone they fancy . Anyone can be a killer here.

I remember that I need to stay alive to bring my daughter back to safety, so I relent and go back to Schumann.

For years, I held a small, anonymous protest. I would not perform in Venezuela if it meant receiving money which was in any way tainted by officialdom. Social media protest isn’t my thing. I read and admired the posts by Gabriela Montero, one of our finest artists. I have signed petitions, gone to marches in London and told everyone I meet what is going on but I haven’t publicly pronounced. I have decided to speak up now because I wanted to set the record straight regarding the way in which news from my country is presented. The accounts are mostly incorrect and misinterpreted. It is very difficult, for a non-Venezuelan, to access and interpret live videos from social media in an accurate way. It is important that you understand the gravity of the situation. We need the support of the UK government. We need help. Human rights are violated . Innocent people are being killed every day. After the events of this week, flooded by feelings of guilt, impotence and worry for my close ones and unable to offer my support in person I have obtained a twitter account. To bridge the gap between the now and then. The here and there. Between the two disparate sets of childhood memories.

The scenes from this trip elicited a very different response and the titles of each piece in the cycle evoqued recent events. Schuman’s lens is now distorted. This is indeed a ‘Foreign land’

Down the road, in Plaza Altamira , an opposition stronghold, there are no children playing or pushing prams like I am used to. The sound of tear gas and bullets mingles with that of people shouting, running and screaming. We run inside for cover. All the children – at least the ones lucky enough to have a home with walls – are indoors. 

These days, a grand event for most families is to have two meals a day ( the equivalent of winning the lottery), or to make it home safely, or even better, to make it home at all!

The bakery next door, once famous for its cakes displays a ghostly array of empty shelves. I become the family’s chief bread hunter. My duties involve going down at strategically timed intervals in case they manage to bring out a few trays. Imagine trying to hold down a job and raising three kids whilst having to hunt around the city for bread, soap, toilet paper (a luxury item). ‘A begging child’ is now an all too familiar sight in most streets with gangs of children running around looking for food in any way they can get it. My street is no exception.

Hundreds of people of all ages take to the streets.

What can anyone say to the parents and family of  Armando Canyizales, a child of 17  killed today by the very people who should have been protecting him. And all the other children, parents, grand parents that have been murdered?



Elena Riu, London, May 4, 2017


Elena Riu will play Kinderszenen at Trinity Laban on May 10. Details here.



  • Ungeheuer says:

    Terrific and terrifying depiction of what is happening in Venezuela. The author might as well be depicting Cuba (without the crime and unrest – but that may be in the cards) or the bankrupt U.S. territory, Puerto Rico (with the crime and unrest but without hunger – although that may be in the cards).

    • V.Lind says:

      I have only been in Venezuela twice, including Caracas, but it was pre-Chavez. It seemed an agreeable large city as such things go, perhaps less interesting than Buenos Aires or most cities in Brazil, or just about anywhere else I had been in South America. I remember the Tube was held up as a model of cleanliness, efficiency, safety and ease for foreigners, all with justice.

      I have spent considerably longer, and later, in Cuba on several visits. I do not think its crime is all that high. It was certainly poor after the Warsaw Pact withdrew its subsidies, and it had not been rich before that. But I have rarely been in a place more full of optimism and energy. A far from well-off young man I got to know said one evening, “My people are hungry, but still they dance…” and indeed there seemed to be music on every block and people dancing wherever they could.

      Things will ease as the embargo recedes, and the regime has lightened up on commercial activity to some extent. Cuba’s post-revolution history is complicated, and not a subject for this forum, but it might never have gone communist if the US had accepted its new government at the time — certainly it intended to take over enterprises that the Americans had coopted, and toss out the US organised crime gangs, but it was never directly communist till they refused to receive Castro when he came to the UN. Between their terror of “socialism” (which they have never comprehended) and their commercial self-interest, the US set out to destroy Castro’s Cuba.It is only to be hoped that once travel relaxes even more, they will not return to their bad old ways. I suspect that even the people of Cuba, tried as they have been, will not wear it.

      Not so clear what Maduro is up to. I doubt Chavez was ever as bad as the US or Gabriela Montero claimed, but it looks as if his successor is a full-blown totalitarian thug. Chavez was trying to help more of his people to a better life in the same way the young Fidelistas began. Happily, Fidel has been succeeded by a man who seems to have an eye on the future as well as the past he and his brother and their allies built. It appears Chavez has not been so fortunate.

      Don’t get me wrong — Cuba was not a paradise under the post-Revolutionary regime. But an awful lot of people were significantly better off than they had been under the Batista regime. Whereas in Venezuela, the presidents succeeding Perez did not seem as much corrupt as financially very unlucky, to put it charitably. Nor did Chavez appear to be corrupt. His successor certainly does.

      Where is Henry Kissinger when you need him? He dispatched duly-elected Allende without hesitation and was instrumental, no doubt, in the downfall of duly-elected Daniel Ortega. Oh, yes, tainted himself, unable to go anywhere lest he get INDICTED. Anyway, he is the living proof that American politicians have no grasp of Latin America.

      All this has stemmed from criticism of a musician who lives principally though not exclusively in the US, who did not disassociate himself from Hugo Chavez. Not sure he had to: some of us did not like the sell-out rightwingers American pols liked. He may have not been first out of the gate on Maduro, but he has come out, as he cannot like what he sees going on in his country. There is a limit to what he, or anyone, can do: it’s time some of the international powers stepped up, as Elena Riu so eloquently requests. It is a pity she has acted just as Britain is engaged in Theresa May’s vanity election, but British election campaigns, unlike American, are mercifully short so I hope she keeps pushing. Her voice deserves to be heard. And she might approach Dudamel to help her.

      • The View from America says:

        There’s also the unmistakable whiff of anti-Semitism in both the Maduro and Chavez regime’s actions. It isn’t just opposition leader Enrique Capriles Radonski who’s been targeted, but others, too — who aren’t in any way in “politicized” professions (architecture, anyone?).

        To them — and to many others in the professional classes, the message has been clear: “Head for the border and don’t look back.”

        The end of this regime can’t come soon enough.

      • Carlos says:

        Chavez created this situation, he just didn’t live enough to deal with its consequences. His so-praised interest for the poor was nothing but the trickling-down of the greatest oil bonanza any country has ever seen. Incredible, the extreme left ends up doi ng exatly the same they criticize from the right
        Chavez used oil-money to destroy the economy by promoting imports (heavily subsidized with a crazy low exchange rate), huge spending in an enormous State apparatus, expropiations and the machinery of fear and corruption that is now securing the Cuban grasp on Venezuela.
        Yes, this is as bad as Gabriela says.
        A Venezuelan (black, son of peasants who became middle class during the years of our democracy -pre 1999-, and now dirt poor thanks to socialism) living in Venezuela.

      • Alonzo says:

        Can you explain to me how in a socialist epitome such as Chavez’ and Maduro’s Venezuela the daughter of a once-poor NCO who became president became the richest woman in Venezuela, then landed a cushy job in NYC as Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN?
        The Cuban model has only existed by virtue of parasitic relations with the USSR and now Venezuela. Granted the hard line US approach to the Castro regime didn’t help, but Cuba’s infiltration of Venezuela began in May 1967 on the beach of Machurucuto. It was repressed by National Guard, but Venezuela had been the jewel in Fidel’s eye since then.

    • Anthony M. says:

      “I have been to Venezuela twice… Not so clear what Maduro is up to. I doubt Chavez was ever as bad as the US or Gabriela Montero claimed.”

      And based on your two trips you answer 7 paragraphs to answer Venezuelans who have family, friends and life long experience there? I have been visiting, working and traveling through Venezuela and the rest of S America for 30+ years at least 20-25 times. I have made many friends in Venezuela and observed closely what has been happening with the Chavez-Maduro regime.

      Elena Riu and the courageous Gabriela Montero have both been vocal and active politically and artistically against the HC regime that laid waste to the Venezuela economy and grew increasingly despotic, then violent, in reply to the people of that great country’s increasing suffering and public protests for change.

      Maduro can not be separated from Chavez’s misguided policies: he is just the other shoe dropping – an extension of HC’s disastrous ways. Had Chavez continued he would have had to create Maduro’s same atmosphere of violence and fear to crack down on the citizens’ reaction to a nosediving economy, starving population and exploding violent crime… just to stay in power. All the while living in vast luxury and no doubt sending the country’s oil riches off to their own accounts in Cayman, Zurich et alia.
      The faster Maduro and his cronies are forced out, and a new leader can be elected in free and fair elections, the better for all of this suffering country and its people. Let’s hope the UN and a coalition of countries can prosecute that event as soon, and as peacefully as possible.

      • The View from America says:

        Have you noticed how many people who are apologists for the horrific Chavez-Maduro regime do so from the comfy armchairs of their homes outside the country? Most haven’t set foot in Venezuela for even five minutes.

        Those of us who’ve spent time there, or have/had relatives there (as I do), know better.

        And what we know is that the end of the Chavez-Maduro regime can’t come soon enough.

  • pooroperaman says:

    And remember, folks, this is a regime supported by Jeremy Corbyn. We have just four weeks to save the UK from the same fate.

    • Shaenandhoa says:

      Great account! Thank you for sharing!! I am quite disappointed by the coverage of the BBC and The Guardia about the Venezuelan situation. It’s shameful at best and complicit at worst. My and my siblings leaving in Europe and the UK try to call out their bluff anytime we come across it…. but may be something else can be done…

  • Elena Riu says:

    Please take a look at this video which appeared today. I am sorry if it upsets you but I had tears in my eyes as I watched it. My country needs your help. If you know any journalists please pass it on. Venezuela has become hell.
    Many thanks for your help.


  • Elena Riu says:

    Hello to all. The government of Venezuela continues to murder innocent children. Today one17year old has been killed. From a tear gas bomb shot in the heart. Another one is presumed dead after he was taken away by 4 armed national guards. When he resisted being put on the motorbike another national guard rammed his motorbike on to him. On purpose.Then, they dragged him down the road. Nobody knows where he is. You can see this horrifyinf footage on MP’s Juan Manuel Olivares twitter account @ joseolivaresm I am sorry if it upsets you but I had tears in my eyes as I watched it. My country needs your help. If you know any journalists please pass it on. Venezuela has become hell.
    Many thanks for your help.